There is more going on in the Saharan band of Africa than the war in Chad. In the seven countries to the west of Chad a remarkable pattern of international cooperation, the Sahelian development program, continues.
One of the several tragedies of the Chadian disaster is that this, one of the poorest countries, has lost the benefits of the Sahelian program. In early 1980 most of the foreign technicians were withdrawn. Except for some continued training of Chadians outside the country, the program is in suspension.
In 1972, the United States, together with other concerned countries and institutions, awakened to the consequences of a severe drought stretching from Senegal and Mauritania to Chad, a region two-thirds the size of the US with a population of more than 30 million people.
The drought, which had begun in 1968, had resulted in the deaths through starvation and disease of an estimated 100,000 people and the decimation of 50 percent of the region's cattle. The desert was moving into once fertile regions, engulfing villages and date groves in sand and parching hundreds of square miles of earth. The way of life of those who had lived, with their livestock, on the sparse vegetation of the Sahara was threatened with extinction.
The late Sen. Hubert Humphrey was then chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on Africa. Working with the executive, he held hearings to alert the public and the Congress to the disaster and the need. In December 1973 Congress authorized on a comprehensive long-term program for Sahelian development.
In the same year the nations of the area formed an interstate committee for drought control. Working with France, the former colonial power in the area, the US assisted in the organization of the Club du Sahel, a consultative group of donors and recipients. Ultimately this group included several members of the international donor community, United Nations organizations, African organizations, the multilateral lending agencies, the Sahelian countries, and the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa.
The resulting cooperation has many features which make the project particularly attractive to the US.
An emergency food aid program has been transformed into a development program emphasizing indigenous food production.
The largest share of the aid is met by other countries and institutions. The US share has averaged about six percent for the life of the $1.7 billion program. The OPEC countries are involved and assuming an increasing share of the total assistance.
Protocol and formality have been deemphasized so as to encourage each nation to participate in accordance with its own procedures and policies. Bureaucracy has been held to a minimum; the secretariat of the Club du Sahel consists of only three people!
No program seeking to recover from a major natural disaster and create a basis for sound development in such a region is without its serious problems. The Sahelian program is no exception.
The economies and, in some cases, the governments were fragile, even before the drought. Inevitably there have been conflicts between those who would rebuild societies along old lines and those who would seek new paths. There has been the need to balance the desire for good prices for the farmer with the political necessity of holding down food prices. There have been conflicts between priorities of individual nations and of the region.
High energy costs hit the countries just as the program began, adding to their foreign exchange burdens.
With such problems and variations, the overall progress is mixed from country to country, but available statistics point to modest but appreciable gains in per capita income, life expectancy, public health, food production, and food storage facilities. Livestock herds decimated by the drought have been largely reconstituted. In areas of Upper Volta and Mali, long considered uninhabitable because of onchocerciasis, the incidence of the disease has declined from 65 percent to 5 percent of the population.
The Sahelian program, despite its problems, demonstrates that international cooperation is possible in foreign assistance. Seven countries, friendly to the US, have been substantially helped; the possibility of further Chads has been reduced. In a day of doubt about foreign aid, the Sahelian program illustrates what is possible through a long-term commitment, intelligent international cooperation, and a substantial role for the countries themselves.